Oversight of Private Prisons Needed

Toledo Blade, July 21, 2013

Gov. John Kasich and state lawmakers are pushing a plan to privatize more prison operations — a risky move that will demand far greater oversight by the administration, legislators, and citizens.

Ohio has hired a private vendor to start feeding its 50,000 prisoners. That company’s track record includes billing for food it doesn’t serve, using substandard ingredients, and even creating disturbances because of its meals.

Audits in several states, including Ohio, have found that the vendor, the Philadelphia-based catering giant Aramark, has charged for meals not served, changed recipes to use cheaper ingredients, and skimped on portions.

A 2001 audit by then-Ohio Auditor Jim Petro found that the state’s prison system paid Aramark for serving nearly 4.5 million meals, instead of the 2.8 million meals it actually delivered, adding more than $2 million to contract costs. On-site visits also found inexcusable sanitation conditions, a lack of training, and “a near riot” at breakfast over Aramark’s strict adherence to portion sizes.

Aramark handles food service at more than 600 prisons in North America. In Florida, a 2007 internal audit concluded that Aramark’s practice of charging the state per inmate, instead of per meal, cut the company’s costs by nearly $5 million. Many inmates stopped showing up for meals, possibly because the food was so bad that prisoners who could afford to do so purchased their food in prison stores.

Aramark stopped serving Florida’s prison meals in 2009. That year, a prison riot in Kentucky, sparked over food issues, launched another state audit. That review found Aramark overbilled the state by as much as $130,000 a year.

This is not the kind of record that should inspire confidence among Mr. Kasich, lawmakers, or Ohio taxpayers. State government’s push to privatize prison operations appears driven more by ideology than by cost savings, efficiency, or the state’s long-term interests.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, a strong proponent of privatization, initially decided not to go ahead with prison food service contracts because they didn’t save enough. But Republican lawmakers balked and state officials “reworked” the numbers, eventually awarding a $50-million-a-year contract to Aramark.

In Ohio, the $110-million deal for prison food service starts Sept. 8 and runs through mid-2015. More than half of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s 433 food service employees have been moved to other positions.

Given Aramark’s record, it’s questionable whether the company can save the state $14 million a year, as advocates claim, without severely cutting corners, endangering the health of inmates, and undermining prison security.

Some politicians consider privatization a panacea; it is not. At the very least, lawmakers ought to ensure that the state monitors the prison food service contract carefully. They must also demand a full — and honest — accounting of its performance and costs.

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